Learn On A Leica (digital)... Are You With Me Cameraman?

With the exception of the three photos of my custom leather leica (provided by cameraleather.com) all images contained in this article were shot with the Leica Digilux 2.

• NEW • Leica Digilux 2 Samples - At The Beach

Digilux 2 Sample Gallery w/EXIF

Ok... so I'm not TV's SHAM WOW huckster, Vince. But his Sham Wow sales pitch often reminds me of the state of digital photography and how all these latest mega-mega-mega-multi-mega pixel point n' shoots will do everything but go out and get the pizza... (though I do find it odd you can't get one with a built-in phone. What's up with that?) The point is, these cameras pretty much work themselves and frankly, do a pretty darn good job.

Digital photography has done for the average snapshot what music CDs did for the average home stereo system. When you consider the comparison of what hardcore photographers went through and compare it to what hard core audiophiles would go through, the infinite pursuit of nirvana was a collective mix of pain, punishment and insanity. But, oh the joy when you succeeded. Then along comes digital and the average Joe has upped his listening pleasure (and now, family photo album quality) by quantum leaps while never coming close to cutting off an ear to get there.

All-in-all, for the general population, the benefits of digital are a good thing. But without seeming like a masochist, a lot has been lost in the translation. I'll often meet new photographers that through the ease of digital have graduated to the level of enthusiasts=. Often, they'll see an image and ask, "what were the settings?" A fair question, to be sure. But will the answer really provide an accurate path to similar results? I suppose in a still life setting, maybe. But we all know, "the science of light" is a moving target at best. And, you're not going to spout it out with a 140 character tweet on Twitter.

So.. if you're happy shooting away with the dial pointed at "AUTOMATIC," today's blog entry is probably not for you. But, if you've got your hands wrapped around your shiny new DSLR and you feel like you're photos are about to bore you to death, read on. We're going to try to get you a broader understanding of what the camera is doing to your photos and see if we can't put that puppy on a leash and get you in command.

This is one of my custom leather trimmed Digilux 2's... you can find a good clean one for $500-$700.Another author recently wrote an article called "Leica as Teacher." Now, I'm not sure why he was adamant about Leica, but the concept was pretty sound. His idea was that you should get an old Leica rangefinder, one fixed focal length lens (35mm/50mm) and use only one type of black and white film. Then shoot for one year.. religiously. He guarantees, and I'll echo that guarantee, that at the end of the 12 months you will be a MUCH better photographer than when you started.

Why? Lots of reasons... first, you simplify the assessment and analysis of your results. You're not looking at colors... you're only looking at light and how the highlights, shadows and contrast are played out. Hence the reason for one type of film... you're working with and reviewing with a constant. Second, the settings on the camera are minimal. Shutter speed and aperture. It's all about managing the light. Lastly, and the most obvious, you're not playing around with a computer and a multitude of choices. You simply read the light, bring the camera up to your eye, focus and shoot. This slows the entire process down and gives you more time to think about the picture.

Although this Leica is digital, it's analogue controls and phenomenal Leica lens make it a great candidate for our "learning" purpose. Plus you'll have a camera you'll treasure for years.When you can remove all the technical hurdles of your photography, you can then begin to learn how to "see in pictures." What we mean by this is not just composing and framing, but also manipulating the shortcomings of the camera to enhance the "story" that's playing out in front of us. After all, with photography, what you see is NOT necessarily what you get. If you aren't clear about what I mean, consider those head shots where the background is blurry. You don't really "see" that in real life. Your mind will mentally "discount" the background when you're looking at something... but your eyes, unlike a lens, see in 3D and continually focus and adjust in real time.

Now, here's where I'm going to deviate from the other author's suggestions. His insistence to go with film is valid... and he's making sure you don't have the digital creature comforts to fall back on. He's urging a boot camp mentality and he's not wrong.

As many of you know, I'm a fan of the Leica Digilux 2... or it's Panasonic sister, the Lumix DMC LC1. What I've always liked about this camera is the analogue positions of the aperture and shutter speed controls. They are very much the same as an old fashioned film camera. You adjust the aperture on the lens barrel and you adjust the shutter speed with a knob on top of the camera. For those reasons, I'd strongly recommend one to anyone whose serious about learning photography the right way. You can pick one up between $400 - $700. They originally sold for $1895. The lens on this camera is in a league of its own.

Obviously, since the camera is digital, so you'll still have menu controls and other options, but for our purposes here, you don't have to use them. We want to shoot at ISO 100, using the black & white setting and keep the camera in manual shooting mode. Gets some discipline and stick with it. Hey, I'm going easy on you here... at least you're not going to have to deal with the hassle (and cost) of finding, shooting and developing film.

Like traditional 35mm film cameras, the Digilux 2 retains its aperture adjustments right on the lens barrel. A quick twist dials you right in. No messing with buttons, menu settings or cursors.So let's talk about those settings. For those of you advanced in photography, this might be a bore... but then again, a refresher never hurt anybody. And I will tell you, if you've done nothing but shot with a DSLR for the past two or three years, you're due for a refresher. Today's DSLRs can make you mentally fat and lazy in a heartbeat. I wouldn't go as far as to say they will stifle your creativity, but they sure can make you comfortably numb. (Pink Floyd reference for those audiophiles that are following along.)

OK. Basic concept of exposure settings. Let's first establish that a "correct" exposure = "X." Next, we'll label our aperture (or F stop) as "A" and our shutter speed as "S." We know that in order to obtain "X," we need some magic combination of "A" + "S."

Let's say "X" is a FULL glass of water. How can we fill that glass? We can turn the faucet on lightly, producing a thin stream of water and let the glass fill slowly, or we can turn the faucet on full blast and fill it up quickly. Either way, we fill the glass. We get "X." Exposing our photo is the pretty much the same process. We can let a little bit of light stream in slowly or we can let a lot of light in quickly. Either way, we get "X."

Keeping with the analogue model, the shutter speed knob is right on top of the camera... just like it always was.So, assuming with are dealing with a constant light source, we can open our aperture and speed up the shutter, or we can close our aperture and slow down are shutter. Again, all we are striving for is the right combination of "A" + "S" so we can end up with "X."

The shutter settings are fairly self explanatory. It's the time broken down in fractions of a second. Since time is concept we're all familiar with, it's not hard to understand what 1/60th of a second is. The aperture settings are a bit more confusing. The increments used to call out your aperture settings are called F stops. If you are using a setting of f/2.8, that is a very large aperture opening. If you are using a setting of f/22, that is a very tiny opening. In practice, and again using the exact same light source, the f/2.8 would require you use a fast shutter and the f/22 would require you to use a slow shutter.

A good piece of equipment to have and one that will help you grow to better understand the light is a hand held light meter. It doesn't need to be an expensive one, but they are great tools and will help you come to grips with the combinations of "A" + "S" equalling "X." Keep in mind, there will be multiple combinations of "A" + "S" that will deliver "X." What we want is to be in command of those choices so we can apply the right combination to creatively enhance our photo.

Here's a shot somewhat typical of Leica style street photography. Just get out there and shoot.Whoa.. "creatively enhance" our photo? That's right... just slipped that right in on you, didn't I? Ok, but before we get ahead of ourselves, let's just touch on ISO settings. In the film days, ISO was also called ASA. This was the "speed" of the film. ASA (now ISO) 100 would be a "slower" film, meaning it would require more light to be properly exposed. ASA/ISO 400 would be "faster" film, meaning it would require lest light to be exposed. The trade off was that faster film would possess more grain. In digital we call it noise. ISO will effect your shutter and aperture settings equally. It's very similar to octaves or keys in music. While there are eight notes on a musical scale, the same eight notes can reside in higher or lower octaves. So, if there's not enough light to obtain "X" with adequate "A" + "S" combinations at 100 ISO, you could go up to ISO 200 and gain a full F stop. Here again, a handheld light meter is great for seeing and learning these combinations as they are all right there in front of you... allowing you to choose.

I need to insert a little note about shutter speed here. You have to remember, your ability to hold the camera steady becomes extremely critical at slow shutter speeds. How steady? Real steady! The slightest tremble can blur your photo. A rule of thumb is to not shoot at a shutter speed with a number lower than your lens focal length. So if you're shooting with a 50mm lens, you'll want to stay around 1/60th or better. With a 100mm lens, try to stay around or above 1/125th. Even at that, you'll have to be very steady... so try to work with that little reminder.

I know, you want to jump in to that "creative" discussion. You aperture plays a large effect on the look of your photo because of the way it effects the focusing characteristics. This can dramatically alter the final "look" of your photo.

This image of an antique hood ornament uses a shallow depth-of-field to draw the viewers eye to the main subject.You have all heard the term "depth-of-field." Depth-of-field refers to the area of the scene that remains "acceptably" in focus. In other words, if we were shooing an egg on a table, once we are focused on the egg, there will be a point at the front and a point at the rear where our image will no longer be in focus. Your depth of field is reduced when you are using a large aperture and increased when you use a small aperture. Remember, the lower the number, the larger the aperture, the larger the number, the smaller the aperture. By controlling the depth of field, we can make some creative choices.

Portraiture is a great example of using depth-of-filed to your advantage. By having your subject stand away from the background and using a larger aperture you can have a nice silky smooth background that will make your subject "pop" of the page. Keeping in mind this will also be affected by the lens focal length, the camera's distance from the subject and the subject's distance from the background, you'll want to shoot as wide open as you can while being careful not to go to "shallow." If you're depth-of-field is too shallow, you might end up with a sharply focused nose and a soft focused eye or vice versa. Try not to over do it.

Use a wide open aperture to make your portraits or head shots "pop."By the same token, when shooting landscapes, interiors, a large group of people, or even a car, you'll want to consider a smaller aperture in order to retain sharp focus across the entire scene. While landscapes won't be greatly affected due to the distance you're shooting, a car or a group of people can be very critical. You'll want everything to stay in focus.

Shutter speed can also have a creative impact. I shoot a lot of motorsports. Because I want to show the action and dsiplay the car's speed in my photo, I'll shoot at a slow shutter speed while I follow or pan the car with my camera. This is a learned skill and takes lots of practice but will have a dramatic result on the final image. While I'll typically shoot with a 200mm lens at 1/80th - 1/125th of a second, it's not unusual for me to shoot at 1/30th or even 1/15th. Of course the result can be extreme and the success rate is exponentially reduced. But when they're right, they're awesome.

Landscape and nature photographers might also employ slower shutters when shooting bodies of water. You've all seen shots of waterfalls or streams where the water takes on a look of smoke or steam... that is accomplished by shooting (usually on tripod) at slow shutter speeds. Even large bodies of water can take on a very surreal look when the shutter is slowed enough to allow the movement of the water to smooth out and have a silky appearance.

Keep your camera with you and shoot a lot. Shoot everything... look at it, compare it... learn to see what is happening with the light. Learn to "see" in pictures.But these are creative techniques. These are the techniques that come with time and practice. First, you have to have the knowledge. What's been provided here is an understanding of the concept and theories. What you must do is practice. This means shooting and reviewing your work. You have to shoot a lot. That's an advantages of digital.

You can use this advantage to accelerate your learning curve. But you still need to practice and develop good habits. Shoot with specific goals. Shoot at certain settings then review the results. Learn what happens when you do "this" and then what happens when you do "that." Your digital files contain EXIF data. All the information about a particular photo is contained in the EXIF data. EXIF provides everything from the date you shot the photo, the make and model of camera, the lens, the focal length, and yes... even the aperture and shutter settings.

Let's go back to our original idea which was to religiously use an older simple camera, shoot strictly black and white and stick to one ISO setting. I like the Digilux 2 or Lumix DMC LC1 because of the analogue controls and it's similarity to a film camera. Plus, at the end of this exercise, you'll have a great camera that I'm guessing you'll keep using forever.

Most important, have fun with your camera. Encourage your friends to pose and participate. Have fun with it.If you're using Aperture or Lightroom... or even iPhoto, force yourself to take a classroom approach to your shooting. Organize lessons in your photo archive and rate the good shots and get rid of the bad shots. Organize them chronologically so you can see your progress. After 12 months look at the differences. If you've been disciplined in your exercises and practice, you should see a big difference.

At the end of one year, you will be a completely different photographer. You will "see" in pictures because you will "see" the light as it effects your picture. Now you will interpret and apply the right tools to creatively control the scene and make it YOUR picture. After all, that's what it's all about... MAKING pictures... not just taking pictures.

I'm spent. Hope I've shared some things that help.

JT